About 15 years ago, my grandfather visited his mother’s grave for the first time. He’d never known her. She died weeks, if not days, after he was born in 1916. His father remarried so quickly that my grandfather thought his stepmother was his biological mother for most of his life. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-60s that he was told the truth.
Several years after he had moved into our home, my parents took him to the Staten Island cemetery where his mother was buried. He was 85 then, and it had probably been about that long since anyone had been there. The marker was shrouded by 10-inch weeds, and they could barely make out her name etched in the headstone. Later, my dad took my grandfather back, gloves and shears in hand, and went to work cleaning the site.
This is a reality at most cemeteries. People move away, they get busy, next of kin die, and before long, a grave site has had no visitor for decades. Upkeep is generally the responsibility of loved ones, so when it’s neglected, the grass becomes overgrown and the stone starts to erode.
Sabah Ammouri had a similar experience when he wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave. But he couldn’t find her because so many of the markers were covered by grass and moss and because the inscriptions were barely legible. He told his friend Michael Goliszek about this, and the two decided to start a business to give people who live too far, are physically unable or are simply too busy a way to honor their loved ones.
Launched in May, Heaven’s Maids provides grave-site cleanings and flower deliveries to cemeteries. A person simply sets up a profile for the deceased and then invites other family and friends to the page. Then, through the website, they can schedule the visits.
Once the grave has been cleaned or the flowers have been delivered, a photo of it is uploaded to the profile. In this private space, family and friends are encouraged to share memories and their own photos of the deceased.
In the same way that visiting a grave helps people feel connected to the person they have lost, for those who can’t visit, the picture of the pristine site can provide a similar feeling of connectedness, Goliszek said.
Goliszek and Ammouri are not the first to enter this market. In 2011, the New York Times profiled a woman who advertised herself as a grave visitor for hire:
Advertising in a local newspaper and in fliers she distributed in surrounding towns, she offered her services: “Continue your signs of love and respect for your loved ones who have passed. If you are unable to visit your loved ones for whatever reason, I can help. Whether you need flowers delivered, prayers said or just a status on the condition of the site, I will visit any Westchester or Putnam County cemetery on your behalf. Proof of my visit will be either e-mailed or sent to you through the mail.”
But therein was the problem. Where such services exist, they seemed limited to specific geographic areas.
Heaven’s Maid is available across the entire United States. The company is in the process of partnering with 164 cemeteries who will take care of the cleaning and flower delivery. If a loved one is buried in a cemetery not yet associated with the company, Goliszek said they hire trained cleaners and deliverers on a freelance basis.
To have a grave site cleaned once, which includes scrubbing the stone, weeding and fertilizing, costs $39. You can also buy a package of two cleanings for $59 or three for $89. To just have flowers delivered costs $39 for silk flowers and $49 for fresh ones. The website asks what the occasion is for sending them, be it a birthday, anniversary or holiday. All of the services come with a confirmation photo.
Regular graveside visits are difficult for those who don’t live near where their families are buried. A study of U.S. families by AARP found that 28 percent of parents older than 50 have children living more than an hour away. Of those, 40 percent are a full five or more hours away by driving.
Many people who visit believe their loved ones know they are there and speak to them; others find peace and solace in the quiet moments spent remembering. But for those who can’t make it to the cemetery, Heaven’s Maid’s founders think they have found the next best option.
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